Collection Care blog

06 July 2015

Under the Microscope with Magna Carta

We recently held a very successful public event sharing our conservation work in preparation for the British Library Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition. The exhibition marks 800 glorious years of Magna Carta since it was granted by King John of England in 1215. The conservation project involved removing six manuscripts from their frames and rehousing them for display. While they were out of their frames, the manuscripts were examined using various scientific techniques. High-resolution digital microscopy enabled incredible magnification of the iron gall ink and parchment which make up the charters. Here is a selection of the images captured of Cotton MS Augustus ii.106, one of the British Library’s two original Magna Cartas dating to 15 June 1215. Enjoy!

The Magna Carta rests on a platform with a microscope above it which Christina Duffy looks through.
Imaging Scientist Christina Duffy
A full view of Magna Carta 1215. It is a rectangular pieces of parchment with small text.
Magna Carta 1215

Magna Carta 1215 (Cotton MS Augustus ii.106) – one of four surviving original 1215 copies.

Iron gall ink

Iron gall ink has been used since the middle-ages and is found on many of our most treasured collections including the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf and Magna Carta. The main ingredients of iron gall ink include iron sulphate, tannins from oak galls and water. Overall the ink is in very good condition on this charter allowing us to appreciate the beauty in the detail of some of the intials.

A close up of the bottom left of Magna Carta 1215.
Magna Carta 1215 detail


20X magnification showing an uppercase letter which looks like an O that has been half filled in, with dotted lines going down the centre.
Iron gall ink at 20x
An even closer image of the O - some cracks are visible.
Iron gall ink at 30x
An even closer shot, showing loss of ink on the parchment surface.
Iron gall ink at 150x

At high magnification we can see that some areas have experienced ink loss, but the Great Charter is still legible due to the remaining ink shadow left behind. Find out more about iron gall ink in a previous post here.

A closeup of the text along the right hand side of the Magna Carta. Text runs in horizontal lines across the image.
Magnca Carta 1215 detail right


A close up of some of the text, showing a variety of letters, including ones which look like an uppercase T and O. Some loss of ink is visible.
Ink loss at 30x
An even closer look at the O shape, with cracking and link loss very visible.
Ink loss at 100x
Yet a closer look at the ink loss. At this level of magnification, the ink which is left looks like rocks or ground coffee beans.
Ink loss at 200x


The parchment on which Magna Carta has been written is thought to be sheepskin. Parchment is an animal pelt which has had the hairs removed by liming or enzymatic action. It is then stretched and dried under tension creating a perfect writing surface with a thin opaque membrane. Below are some images showing damage to the  upper dermal layers of the parchment. Find out more about parchment here.

A close up of text in the centre of the Magna Carta.
Magna Carta 1215 detail centre


An even closer look at the text. There is a what looks like a hole--damage to the skin--in a oval-like shape. The right side of the oval is curved as normal but the left side is shaped like the edge of a triangle.
Damage at 30x
An even closer view of this oval-shaped damage. There is a ring of black around this hole.
Damage at 50x
An even closer look of this damage, showing that the skin is quite textured.
Damage at 150x

CC by You can find out more about this charter on the British Library Magna Carta resource page.

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)


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